If you want a film that speaks successfully to kids about mental instability, look no further than Inside Out. A fun-filled, hilariously wild ride, the film takes audiences on a journey through the eyes of the personified emotions Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear in their quest to make 11-year-old Riley Anderson happy again. Most importantly, it touches upon issues of depression and mental illness, and what it takes to combat them.
As someone with clinical depression, I can tell you right off the bat that Inside Out isn’t any kind of gritty, dark look into what it means to be depressed. Rather, it is a film about mental imbalance, which comes in many forms, and it is executed in a way that is equally accessible to children and adults. In personifying the emotions within Riley’s brain, we see exacerbated versions of every primary emotion we experiences as humans. Our main protagonist is, of course, Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), whose goal is to keep Riley the bouncy, happy girl she’s always been. A predicament arises, though, when Joy is no longer in control of Riley’s emotions, and has to work with her complete opposite–Sadness–to get back to her. Sadness (Phyllis Smith of The Office) is exactly her namesake; she can do nothing but bring a situation down–or so it appears. Over the course of the film, Joy realizes that perhaps sadness, which can lead to empathy and greater understanding between people, might not always be so terrible to feel after all.
But what happens to someone when some of their key emotions are “missing”? Inside Out explores this in Riley’s transformation. With Joy missing, she is taken over by Fear, Anger and Disgust and loses interest in the things she loves, like hockey. She even burns bridges with family and friends. What does that sound like? Depression. Depression is literally a chemical imbalance within the brain, portrayed here as a positive emotion–Joy–quite literally gone missing. It creates a physicality behind depression that arguably helps children grasp the concept of mental imbalance.
Let’s not forget Sadness is missing too. From a very black-and-white perspective, it would appear that’s a good thing. But where are we without sadness to counteract happiness? How can we come to understand one another fully, without knowing what makes us sad as well as joyful? Sadness is inevitably part of life. It’s in all of us. Some of us just…have a little more joy missing. And Inside Out teaches us that the best way we can strive to live, is in balance with our emotions. Joy’s journey culminates in her understanding that she and Sadness work best for Riley as a unit, not apart. We can take this understanding and apply it to how we might focus on helping our friends and family who deal with depression, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. As sufferers of those disorders, we might take the idea of balance in the film as a reminder of what to strive for. Inside Out speaks to us with depression and mental instability in showing us we’re not alone; it speaks to our friends and family to show them the best ways to reach out and help and understand.
Jam-packed with humor, quirky references (I see you, Chinatown) and a talented group of voice actors, Inside Out is a thrill to watch. More than that, however, it is a film that embraces mental instability and treats it not as a flaw, but as a part of being human. We all need to find balance in our lives–achieving balance of mind is no different.
Overall rating: 4/5